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Let’s Remember Some Raptors: Isiah Thomas, the first face of the franchise

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For a new expansion team desperate for credibility, it felt like a huge boon for the Raptors to announce Isiah Thomas as their Executive Vice President. It did not, however, work out that well.

CAN-THOMAS/RAPTORS-C Photo credit should read CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP via Getty Images

As we zip through ESPN’s weekly re-education campaign The Last Dance, we’ve been given glimpses into the innerworkings of one of the finest teams of the decade, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I say glimpses because, well, the television program in question spends a lot of time on other prior seasons, documenting the trials and tribulations of earlier iterations of the Bulls, led as they were by the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan. Most of this has very little to do with the Toronto Raptors.

That’s doubly (or even triply) true of the 1997-98 version of Toronto’s basketball team, also known as the very worst iteration of the franchise, the squad that went 16-66 after a modest nine-win improvement in their second year of existence. There is, however, a connection.

How that Raptors squad intersects with the Bulls of The Last Dance is best viewed through the fourth episode of the 10-part documentary series. Over that hour we watch Jordan and the Bulls spend all year working together on a plan to upend the Detroit Pistons — the team to beat in the East from 1988 to 1990 — on the way to creating their own dynasty in the early 90s. The Bulls would go on to eliminate the so-called “Bad Boys” Pistons from the 1991 playoffs on their way to their first (of three consecutive) NBA championships. It’s quite a story.

One of the talking heads called upon to reflect on that story is Isiah Thomas, Detroit’s point guard for 13 seasons. In 1994, after winning a pair of championships and being humbled by the Bulls, Thomas retired from the NBA. Not long afterwards he was announced as the first general manager of the league’s newest franchise: the Toronto Raptors.

His Raptors Run

The speed at which this all occurred is quite remarkable in retrospect. On May 12, 1994, Thomas retired from the NBA at just 33 years old, making the announcement of his new position with the Raptors — as five-percent part-owner and Executive Vice President — something of a surprise. Thomas was a highly touted player and a sharp basketball mind, but he had no general manager track record to speak of. Still, it was a calculated risk. The Raptors needed an identity, they needed credibility, and they desperately needed some star power to help launch their bid for NBA legitimacy. To that end, the team would tip off their inaugural season in 1995 with Thomas as the face of the franchise.

For those first few years, all was well. Yes, the Raptors were bad and something of a joke, and they were indeed playing their home games in a baseball stadium. But they did go from 21 wins in their first season to 30 in their second. They had a handful of upwardly mobile young players in Damon Stoudamire (the franchise’s first star), Marcus Camby (the second overall pick in 1996), and Tracy McGrady (taken ninth in in 1997). There were some reasons — however small — to feel good about the Raptors heading into their 1997-98 season.

But then, establishing the trend of Thomas’ post-playing career, it all fell apart.

Instead of trying to build on the success of 1996-97, Thomas made a push for a controlling ownership stake of the Raptors. That didn’t work, and it got him into a protracted dispute with the majority owners as the 1997-98 season got underway. Eventually, Thomas would leave the Raptors in November as they blundered through that terrible campaign. The dominos fell quickly thereafter. In February of 1998, a bereaved Stoudamire, grappling with management’s betrayal, was dealt to the Blazers. In response, then-coach Darrell Walker quit in protest (though he was likely to have been fired anyway if only for burying McGrady). Absent its on-court leader, the Raptors would go on to finish the year, as mentioned, at a basement-dwelling 16-66. To complete the teardown, new GM Glen Grunwald then moved Camby in the off-season.

In less than one calendar year, the Raptors lost the off-court face of their franchise, jettisoned two of their best young players (one of whom was, by the way, the 1996 Rookie of the Year), and completely bottomed out. This wasn’t all Thomas’ fault, of course, but in lieu of more behind-closed-doors details, it certainly looked and felt like it was.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

Trying to find “fun facts” about Thomas, particularly throughout his post-playing days is difficult. It didn’t go well for him in Toronto, but things really took a turn for the worse for Thomas when he took control of the Knicks in 2003 as the team’s President of Basketball Operations. His five year run in charge was an outright disaster, with the team never winning more than 39 games. (They wouldn’t really improve after Thomas left either; these are James Dolan’s Knicks we’re talking about.)

Then there was the employment and sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him and the Madison Square Garden Company in 2006, right in the middle of Thomas’ tenure in New York. The final outcome there: $11.5 million to former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders, and another considerable strike on Thomas’ post-playing career record.

This is perhaps the most astounding thing about reading Thomas’ Wikipedia page. There’s a lot to get through and each entry feels like it should be the last. Thomas was successful as a player, but it seems like disaster has followed in his wake since then. If fame lasts for 15 minutes and infamy much longer, Thomas appears to be bucking both. He just keeps on keeping on.

A Highlight

For all of the things Thomas may or may not have had a direct hand in screwing up — the Raptors, the Continental Basketball Association, the New York Knicks, the FIU Panthers — he was a sharp assessor of talent. His (unpopular) selection of Stoudamire as the heart and soul of that first Raptors team worked on every level, both on and off the court. Thomas also saw the value in Camby, who was in many ways ahead of his time as a frontcourt player. And his selection of high schooler McGrady turned out to be a masterstroke — despite T-Mac’s career really only taking off after he left the Raptors. In this, Thomas knew what he was doing.

And cheesy burst through the logo aside, the Raptors really did need a face like Thomas to get the team off the ground. The ownership group — led by businessmen John Bitove and Allan Slaight — were not going to move tickets on their own. In the absence of quality basketball, they simply lacked the sizzle to get people in Canada excited about the sport. Thomas, meanwhile, was (and still is) a smiling diplomat, ready for any and all public appearances. He remains telegenic, charming, and convincing. It’s at least part of the reason why he’s managed to secure one gig after another across various business ventures. (Another part is his friendship with Dolan, and still another the systemic misogyny rooted in most big business, including pro sports.)

We can definitely pick apart his decision-making over the years, and note some of the more salicious bits of his career’s history, but on opening day in Toronto it was not entirely wrong to suggest that Thomas was something of a saviour for the Raptors.

Where Are They Now?

It is admittedly difficult to keep track of what exactly Thomas is doing these days. He continues to be quite the mover and shaker. Thomas was working as a broadcaster, appearing on NBA TV and contributing to the league’s mothership site, NBA dot com since 2012. He was also making regular appearances on TNT’s Players Only broadcasts, but those stopped happening in the summer of 2019. With no basketball to speak of right now, there hasn’t been much Thomas on the airwaves — save for his bemused appearance on The Last Dance.

That said, Thomas no longer has his finger in any basketball management-related pies right now either. His friendship with team owner Dolan couldn’t keep him in charge of the Knicks; he was pushed out of management of the WNBA’s New York Liberty after the team’s sale to Brooklyn Nets’ owner Joseph Tsai; he was fired by FIU after the team struggled through three seasons under his watch; and the NBA is certainly not about to let him help grow the G League after his handling of the CBA, which collapsed under his stewardship.

There is, however, Isiah International, which, well, you may as well just check out his site. If nothing else, it proves that Isiah Thomas continues to lead a nothworthy life — despite, yes, everything that has happened in it.